[opensource] Intellectual property concerns

D. Brian Larkins larkins at cse.ohio-state.edu
Sun Mar 19 13:10:31 EST 2006

Adam Porr wrote:

> In your experience have you found that these agreements generally
> apply only to IP that is substantially related to the work that you do
> for your employer or is it more general? Have you found companies who
> are willing to make exceptions for open source?

I've worked at several places that have required an IP agreement as a 
part of the employment offer. I'll answer inline below based on my 
experience at each employer. I've worked at AT&T Bell Labs for about 6 
years, a streaming video startup for two years (Startup 1), and a 
data-mining based intrusion detection startup for three years
(Startup 2). Currently employed as a GRA at OSU.

> Perhaps this is better phrased in the form of a short survey:
> 1. Does your employer require you to sign an intellectual property agreement?

AT&T: yes. draconian.
S1:   yes.
S2:   yes.

> 2. Is the scope of the agreement limited to IP related to the type of
> work you do for the company?

AT&T: much like Battelle, we own anything you make that we want. I never
       heard tell of anyone losing a side project to this, however.
S1:   explicit restriction to streaming video at specified bit-rates
S2:   explicit restriction to intrusion detection systems

> 3. Does your agreement have, or were you able to negotiate, an
> exemption for open source projects?

AT&T: hah.
S1:   yes. in IP contract without negotiation.
S2:   yes. underlying run-time was built in-house and GPL'd

> 4. Are you able to notify your employer beforehand of projects that
> you are interested in pursuing in order to get their permission?

AT&T: yes (subject to backpedal and litigation later)
S1:   not needed
S2:   not needed

IMHO, I'm leery of this type of mechanism. The approval process usually 
needs a sign-off from God, who's usually pretty busy, and giving away IP 
scares the crap out of every mid-level manager in the chain on the way 
up. Usually takes months or years if it ever happens at all.

In short, there's not much point in arguing with a big institution like 
AT&T or Batelle about things. Right or wrong, they can easily spend more 
  money on litigation than most people are willing to spend.

Also make sure to take a look at the non-compete clause. Although 
usually acceptable with big companies, startups can have exceptionally 
freakish restrictions on how you can pay your bills should you leave 
their employ. A lot of them are unenforcable, but can cause problems 


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